20 Year Anniversary Media Coverage
August 1996 Volume 21 No 12
California versus France, 20 years on
This last May, the 24th to be exact, marked the 20th anniversary
of what Anthony Dias Blue of Bon Appétit describes as, 'the most
talked about wine tasting of this century'. I should know, for I
was responsible for it.
The background is that 20 years ago I owned a small wine shop in
the centre of Paris called Les Caves de la Madeleine, and had
opened a wine school next door called L'Académie du Vin.
L'Académie du Vin became a 'must' for any visiting wine
journalist or producer and, by the mid 1970s, we had been shown
some exceptional wines from California, perhaps well-known in
London, but not in Paris, where our neighbour Fauchon sold American
screw-cap wine. My partner Patricia Gallagher and I decided that it
would be interesting to show these wines to journalists and other
experts, using the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 as an
I made the final selection of California wines on a visit there
in early 1976, choosing six Chardonnays and six Cabernets. The plan
was to mix then up with four white Burgundies and four red Bordeaux
of impeccable origins, and have them all tasted blind by an equally
impeccable panel. The hoped-for outcome was that if the wines from
California showed honourable, the aim of drawing attention to them,
as well as to l'Académie du Vin, would have been achieved. The
wines were duly tasted one afternoon at the Intercontinental Hotel
in Paris, the nine judges being asked to mark them out of 20. The
result, adding their marks and dividing this by nine, (which I was
told later was statistically meaningless), was as follows:
Chateau Montelena 1973, Meursault-Charmes 1973 Roulot, Chalone
Vineyard 1974, Spring Mountain Vineyards 1973, Beaune Clos des
Mouches 1973 Drouhin, Freemark Abbey 1972, Bâtard-Montrachet 1973
Ramonet-Prudhon, Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles 1972 Leflaive
under the Sichel label, Veedercrest Vineyards 1972 and David Bruce
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970,
Chateau Montrose 1970, Chateau Haut-Brion 1970, Ridge Montebello
Vineyard 1971, Chateau Léoville-Las Cases 1971, Heitz Martha's
Vineyard 1972, Clos du Val 1972, Mayacamas Vineyards 1971 and
Freemark Abbey 1968.
Time magazine, awarding this event a full column in its
international edition, dubbed it 'The Judgment of Paris.' It
certainly drew attention to the wines of California and caused me
no little trouble in the country where I then lived and did
business. In 1986, in New York, I put together a tasting of only
the Cabernets from the original vintages, judged by a similarly
impressive American panel. This time Clos du Val and Ridge narrowly
came out ahead of Montrose, Léoville and Mouton. The French
question the validity of both these tastings, and probably today
the clarets would take the first four places. The results of a
blind tasting cannot be predicted and will not even be reproduced
the next day by the same panel tasting the same wines. Whatever the
complaints about comparing 'apples to oranges' the wines were from
the same grape varieties, and from vintages quite close in age. If
anything was unfair at the Paris tasting, it was that the judges,
with the exception of Aubert de Villaine, had no experience of
wines from California, probably expecting something warm and
weighty, as if from the Midi. If they were trying to second-guess,
they would not have expected a wine with elegance to be other than
All of this came to the fore again at a 'Red, white and
American' conference at the Smithsonian Institute of American
History in Washington DC, which inaugurated an exhibit of assorted
wine artifacts, including a bottle each of the Stag's Leap 1973
Cabernet and Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay, both of which now form
part of the Smithsonian's permanent collection. The title of the
exhibit was: 'Doubtless as Good: Jefferson's Dream for American
Wine Fulfilled'. On the first evening, I was asked to chair a
tasting of the first five ranked red wines from the 1976 tasting,
but from vintages in the early 1990s. The wines were not served
blind and there was no scoring. In fact, this small tasting was
much more a celebration of quality than a comparison. Warren
Winiarski then served his 1973, made from three-year-old Cabernet
vines, matured in 100% French oak, which was a delight to
Although Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena were
catapulted to fame as a result of the 1976 tasting, my feeling is
that the event was just as significant for premium California wines
as a category. Twenty years ago, California was investing more in
research and equipment than any other wine region. The recognition
of the quality of some of these wines by the French panel was not
only a recompense for this, but a spur to further effort.
What none of the original critics of the tasting could foresee
was the effect on France. After the first shock had worn off, the
Napa Valley quickly became a Mecca for French vignerons who looked
further than their local negociant, to see what was going on. This
interfacing between the Old and New World, was the single most
important result of comparing 'apples with oranges' that day in
1976. Twenty years on, there is no reason to hold such a tasting,
except for pleasure.
Steven Spurrier is a wine consultant and writer.
May 29th, 1996
By Frank J. Prial
New York Times
The Day When French Wines Met Their Waterloo
Twenty years ago last week, an Englishman staged a competitive
tasting of French and American wines in Paris, and the Americans
The tasters were prominent figures in the world of French food
and wine. The French wines were famous Bordeaux and Burgundies; the
American wines were virtually unknown outside of California.
The results shocked the French and, overnight, changed the way
the world perceived American wines. The best white wine was a 1973
Napa Valley Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena; the best red, a 1973
Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag 's Leap Wine Cellars.
The second-ranked white was a 1973 Meursault-Charmes from the
Domaine Roulot. For the second-best red the tasters chose the 1970
The tasting, presented by Steven Spurrier, who owned a wine shop
and a wine school in Paris, pitted six California Chardonnays
against four white Burgundies, and six California Cabernet
Sauvignons against four reds from famous Bordeaux chateaus.
The wines were tasted blind; that is, their labels were
Unknown to the tasters, a Time magazine correspondent who
covered the tasting spoke French. He caught one judge dismissing a
Batard-Montrachet from Burgundy with "definitely California - it
has no nose." He caught another saying, "Ah, back to France!" as he
sampled a California Chardonnay.
As is customary, the tasters turned in their notes when they had
finished. Some, embarrassed when they discovered how they had
misjudged the wines, demanded their notes back. "I anticipated
that," Spurrier said, chuckling. "I copied them all down."
The wines, in order of their rating by the French judges
Whites: Chateau Montelena 1973; Meursault-Charmes 1973, Domaine
Roulot; Chalone Vineyard 1974; Spring Mountain Vineyards 1973;
Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973, Joseph Drouhin; Freemark Abbey 1972;
Batard-Montrachet 1973, Ramonet-Prudhon; Puligny-Montrachet "Les
Pucelles" 1972, Domaine Leflaive; Veedercrest Vineyards 1972; and
David Bruce Vineyards 1973.
Reds: Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973; Chateau Mouton-Rothschild
1970, Pauillac; Chateau Montrose 1970, St,-Estephe; Chateau
Haut-Brion 1970, Graves; Ridge Vineyards Mountain Range 1971;
Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases 1974, St.-Julien; Heitz Cellars Martha's
Vineyard 1972, Clos Du Val 1972; Mayacamas Vineyards 1971; and
Freemark Abbey 1968.
Among the American entrants, Veedercrest Vineyards is no longer
in business and Spring Mountain has changed hands. Warren
Winiarski, who made the winning red wine, is still the owner of
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and Miljenko, or Mike, Grgich, who made
the winning white, capitalized on that success and went off to
start Grgich Hills Cellar.
In 1986, 10 years later, Spurrier re-created the red-wine part
of the events in New York, with the same wines minus the Freemark
Abbey, which were then between 13 and 16 years old. On that
occasion, American wines placed first and second: Clos du Val and
Many at the 1986 tasting were surprised at how well the
California wines had matured. In the wake of the Paris tasting,
commentators on both sides of the Atlantic suggested that the
California wines may have had an advantage over the French wines,
which had only begun their traditionally long maturing process.
At a dinner in Washington earlier this month, held in
conjunction with a Smithsonian Institution symposium on American
wine, Winiarski again served his 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. At 23 years of age, the wine was fully
mature and a delight to drink.
Wednesday, May 8, 1996,
By Anthony Dias Blue
Marking a wine tasting that energized California
The Paris tasting of 1976 remains the most talked about wine
tasting of this century. May 24 marks the 20th anniversary of this
landmark event, when nine French judges sat down for a blind
tasting of 20 wines. They didn't know it, but the competition
pitted four top white Burgundies against six California
chardonnays, and four of the best red Bordeaux against six
California cabernets. When the judging panel entered its results,
two California wines were declared the winners: the 1973 Chateau
Montelena Chardonnay and the 1972 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet
The upstart Americans had beaten French wines that represented
the cream of French winemaking, including white Burgundies from
Domain Leflaive, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Roulot and Domaine
Ramonet-Prudhon, and Bordeaux from Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion
The staggering results were certainly a watershed for the
Americans, but a Waterloo for the French? Perhaps it was not that
grave, but California wines, which had been inching toward premium
status, now were at the center of the world stage. Much was made of
the tasting in the American press, with feature articles in Time
and other major magazines.
At the time, many people used the results of the competition to
bash the French and their supposedly elitist wine attitudes. But it
was never the intent of organizer Steven Spurrier, a British wine
writer and founder of L'Academie du Vin, a noted Parisian wine
school, to incite patriotic chest thumping.
"The tasting was to show the French what was going on in
California," Spurrier says. "Actually, I thought the wines from
California would have no chance of winning, but if they showed
honorably, my plan to draw attention to them would have come
His plan worked better than he could have ever imagined.
Overnight, the California wine industry gained respectability and
countless American consumers started to look for these small wines
grown on native soils. The results also inspired more Americans to
try their hand at winemaking, along the lines of Chateau Montelena
and Stag's Leap, eager to make the next great California chardonnay
or cabernet. The revolution was under way.
In the 20 years since the Paris tasting, there have been
countless follow-up competitions, and various wine writers and
merchants have done their best to discredit the original results.
But it's hard to fault the caliber of the original judges. Among
those on the panel were Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée
Conti in Burgundy; Raymond Oliver of Le Grand Vefour restaurant in
Paris; Odette Kahn, editor of the Revue du Vin de France; Claude
Dubois-Millot, wine editor of Le Guide Gault et Millau; and Michel
Dovaz of Institute Oenologique de France. As Spurrier says, "If
they were not qualified, no one was."
There was another important benefit. "The effect on the French
was to have them all scurrying over to California to see what was
going on. This interfacing between French and Californian
winemakers is, in my view, the single most important result of the
tasting, and the only one that has undeniably positive results,"
San Francisco-based Anthony Dias Blue is author or "American
Wine" and a writer for trade and consumer magazines.
April 12-14, 1996
By Jerry Shriver
Toasting a California Wine Win
When James Barrett took the phone call that would thrust
American wines into international prominence overnight, his first
thought was, "Hot Damn, we knocked 'em in the creek!"
Publicly, he was gracious, saying, "Not bad for kids from the
sticks." Not bad at all.
Twenty years ago next month, Barrett and fellow vintner Warren
Winiarski learned that their little-known Napa Valley wines had
beaten their mighty counterparts from Bordeaux and Burgundy in a
Paris tasting that would become a landmark in wine history.
For once, California made the rest of the world quake.
The anniversary will be toasted around the world, including an
exhibit and symposium sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.
"There never had been anything like that happen in the wine
world," recalls Barrett, vintner/owner of Chateau Montelena. "As
far as achieving credibility, we couldn't have done that in 30 more
"Someone once said that was the most important telephone call in
my life, certainly in my career," says Winiarski, owner/winemaker
at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.
On May 24, 1976, nine of the most respected judges in France
tasted 20 wines "blind" - sipping from unmarked glasses. The judges
weren't aware, but four esteemed white Burgundies competed against
six California chardonnays, and four of the best Bordeaux vied with
six California cabernet sauvignons.
At the time, premium California wines (not the $2 jug varieties)
were curiosities. France ruled the wine world while California was
still regaining momentum destroyed by Prohibition. The state's wine
community knew that treasures lurked in its vineyards, but most
Americans didn't know a cabernet from a chardonnay, and most
couldn't find California wines in store.
The time was ripe for a bombshell.
When the judges' results were tallied, Winiarski's 1973 Stag's
Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was declared the best red
wine, better than Bordeaux's famed Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. And a
1973 chardonnay from Barrett's Chateau Montelena bested the white
The French gulped and sputtered, but later tastings produced
similar results. Here was high-profile proof for the first time
that grapes grown in California's fertile valleys and vinified
using French inspired methods could yield world-class wine.
After Time magazine, trumpeted the results, California wine
entered a new age. In the mid-'70s, producers took in about $150
million a year from non-jug wines; today it's $2.5 billion.
The Paris tasting marked "a major turning point in consumers'
attitudes" and was a factor in the "staggering revolution in
vineyard technology," says wine economist Jon Fredrikson.
Among the upcoming celebrations:
Bottles of the winning wines have just become part of the
Smithsonian's permanent collection. They'll be exhibited at the
National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Tuesday
through early June. The Paris tasting will be discussed as part of
a symposium on Wine in American History and Culture, May 10-11.
A version of the tasting may be staged at the U.S. Embassy in
Paris in November.
At the Napa Valley Wine Auction in St. Helena June 6-8,
participants will bid on a re-creation of the Paris tasting
featuring Barrett, Winiarski and tasting organizer Steven Spurrier.
The lot includes dinner at the wineries with chefs Julie Child,
Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller.
Today, neither Winiarski nor Barrett feels as though they beat
the French; instead, we felt as though we were joining in a group,
Winiarski says. It gave us confidence that the soil, climate and
skills we possessed were adequate-more than adequate-to produce
wines that could compete with the great wines of the world.
Says Barrett: We were simply carrying on, writing another
chapter in the ongoing story in the book of wine.
Today's version of the victor
Sampling the current version of the 1976 Paris winner will give
you a glimpse of what caused the fuss 20 years ago:
1993 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($24 - $6 in '73).
People who have tasted the 1973 version of this wine say its
contemporary counterpart is very much similar in style: delicate,
fresh, balanced, not much oak and food-friendly. Grapefruit emerges
from the bouquet, followed by apple, lemon and melon flavors,
Chateau Montelena has also just released a 1993 Chardonnay 20th
Anniversary Commemorative Bottling ($75) honoring the Paris
tasting. This wine is rich and decadent, with intense honey and